GMB’s general secretary Gary Smith speaking in June 2021. Photo: Wikimedia/23Letham

Lindsey German on the fight for peace, remembering Salvador Allende and the loss of a comrade

The war in Ukraine has become a touchstone for the labour movement, with calls for solidarity with the people there intermingled with demands for ever greater and deadlier quantities of weaponry to be thrown into what has become a military stalemate. Only last week, the US announced its decision to send Ukraine depleted uranium munitions – a decision which once might have raised widespread opposition from the left there but now appears to have been met with little challenge.

This week’s TUC Congress in Liverpool has a composite motion, which mixes calls for solidarity with proscriptions on peace talks, including the demand that Russia withdraws to pre-2014 borders, and a commitment to sending whatever financial and practical aid (presumably including arms and equipment) are required. There is in the motion absolutely no criticism of the British government or of the Nato military alliance, or any concern that the actions of our government are helping to prolong the war rather than end it, and that the country has become a testing ground for some of the deadliest weapons around.

The motion contains no real commitment to anti-imperialism. Not that this should be surprising given the TUC’s history: the TUC didn’t support the 2 million strong march against the Iraq war in 2003, and it has always been slow to oppose its own government’s wars. More historically, its role over the anti-colonial struggle, for example in Kenya, was not good. The main mover of the motion, the GMB union, last year was responsible for another policy very narrowly carried which called for an increase in defence spending. This shameful decision by a trade union body weakens the whole movement, because it endorses right wing government policy to increase defence spending at a time when every other area of public services have been cut.

The GMB record on this is not an aberration. Its general secretary, Gary Smith, led the charge on last year’s resolution, and this year wanted to go much farther in calling for arms to Ukraine. My colleague in Stop the War, Andrew Murray, has written of how the whole question of a ceasefire or peace talks is missing from Smith’s analysis and how this means more war and more production of weaponry. The close relationship between the union and the arms industry also extends to the nuclear power industry where again the GMB has led in supporting policies favourable to the right-wing government. It’s beginning to look like a pattern. 

These policies are damaging to the working-class movement because they hide behind the completely justified sentiment of solidarity with the Ukrainian people but in reality accept that we tie ourselves to our own ruling class in doing so. The high flown comparisons with the Spanish revolution hide the reality that sections of the unions are in alliance with one of the most right-wing governments in recent history and supporting a military alliance which has played a major and destructive role in the wears of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. That means alignment with imperialism, not a fight against it.

The bitter reality is this: the war is stalemated and despite the horrific levels of weaponry poured in by both sides that is unlikely to change. It is also clear that the US in particular is now beginning to be more critical of the Ukrainian government and the conduct of the war. As US elections approach, with a majority according to polls wanting to send no more weapons to Ukraine, that will only increase. The longer the war continues the worse the suffering of both Ukrainian and Russian people will be. The trade union movement should call for peace, not war between workers.

Chile: first blow to the class struggle

Today is the 50th anniversary of the coup in Chile where the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende was overthrown by the military and the right, aided by the US government. It was one of the bloodiest of coups: Allende himself died on that day, and tens of thousands of Chileans were rounded up in stadiums, killed, tortured, and raped. Many more were forced into exile, and socialists of my generation probably all knew Chilean refugees.

At the time we knew it was a terrible defeat for the working class internationally: the revenge of a ruling class whose property was threatened in however limited a way. The coup decreed that there could be no room for a left-wing reforming government, and that socialists and trade unionists who tried to change society would be crushed in the most brutal manner.

There were many, then and now, who thought that Allende made the mistake of going too far, too fast and that he should have tried to work with more ‘moderate’ forces, including some of the military. My view is that his mistake was not going far enough in terms of redistribution of wealth and land, and in terms of believing that the armed forces could be relied on to respect an elected government.

Looking back 50 years, it is clear that Chile marked the first blow against the international upsurge of class struggle which marked the 1960s and early 1970s. It wasn’t the end of the matter. We all looked hopefully to the revolution in Portugal in 1974-75 which overthrew far right government, ended Portuguese colonialism, and brought glimpses of workers’ and soldiers’ power. We hoped it would extend to Spain where the fascist dictator Franco was soon to die. But that wasn’t to be and the tide turned in favour of attacks on workers and the introduction of neoliberalism. General Pinochet’s Chile was a trailblazer in terms of monetarist economic policies and he was a firm favourite of Margaret Thatcher.

So it’s important that we remember today the brave Chileans who fought and lost, but who inspired so many. The lessons from those struggles of the 70s are also that we cannot half make a revolution because our class enemies will destroy it-and us. Recent examples from Syriza in Greece to the Corbyn movement in this country demonstrate the ruthlessness of our ruling class and its allies. We still need to learn those lessons.

Alex Brooke 

I was sad to learn of the death of Alex Brooke, a longstanding comrade from Teesside, last week. He was a working-class socialist and involved in IS/SWP from the early 70s and a member of Counterfire from 2011. That’s a long time to stay active and committed and he was a stalwart of the movement. Our generation went from great hopes in those early days to having to learn some hard lessons with the defeat of the miners, deindustrialisation and the weakening of working-class organisation. Teesside was badly affected by those developments. But Alex always kept the hope that things could and would change. My condolences to his family, loved ones, comrades and all who knew him.

This week: I’m travelling to Liverpool to speak at the Stop the War fringe meeting at the TUC. If you’re at Congress or anywhere around Liverpool on Monday night please join us. On Tuesday Counterfire has the film screening of The Battle of Chile and a discussion in London. And on Saturday I will be at Stop the War’s annual conference.

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Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.